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Plan to charge Brussels motorists per kilometer driven

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The Brussels region on Thursday gave its support to a plan to start charging motorists for using the city’s roads from 2022 — igniting a battle with Belgium’s other regions amid fears the levy will penalize commuters.

Under the scheme, dubbed SmartMove, motorists would be charged on the basis of the distance they travel and their vehicle’s engine power, with cheaper fares outside of rush hour. That would be recorded through an app and rely on the camera technology that’s currently used to implement the region’s low emission zone.

Brussels residents would in exchange no longer have to pay an annual road tax, which would only remain in place for luxury cars. “By taxing use, rather than ownership, we encourage drivers to consider alternative means of transport,” Mobility Minister Elke Van den Brandt said in a statement

But that would not benefit people living in Flanders or Wallonia — and Flemish and Walloon politicians voiced their outrage with the plan. “I don’t intend to let this project pass,” Willy Borsus, Wallonia’s economy minister, said on Facebook, calling the scheme “above all, a new tax levy.”

Thursday’s vote in the Brussels parliament is just a first step. The regional government will now open consultations with all stakeholders, including Belgium’s federal government and the other regions.

“I think it’s shocking, if not scandalous, to propose in the midst of a crisis a novel tax system that will heavily impact Walloon households, and particularly the 130,000 Walloon citizens who travel to Brussels on a daily basis to work,” Borsus argued.

Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish-nationalist N-VA party, shared the sentiment: “A new day, a new … measure bullying the working Flemish people,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Brussels government foresees a basic levy of €1 in off-peak hours and €2 during rush hour, which would be corrected for engine power and added to an additional charge per kilometer traveled. Drivers could also opt for a day pass. Driving at night or over weekends and holidays would be free of charge.

With the measure, the government hopes to reduce individual car trips by 25 percent, something it argues will not only improve air quality and quality of life in the capital, but also improve the commuting experience by reducing congestion.

The subject of a distance-based charge has long been debated as a way to tackle Belgium’s congestion and climate problems. Brussels decided to go it alone after the Flanders region put plans, then still in a very rudimentary stage, on ice.

But the government still hopes other regions will join the scheme, a spokesperson for Van den Brandt said. “It’s truly an olive branch toward the other regions.”

The Flemish parliament on Wednesday approved a resolution asking its government to “insist” on an “active” dialogue with the Brussels government. If that doesn’t work out, it should “use all legal means to make sure the Flemish commuter isn’t discriminated against by the introduction” of a kilometer charge, the parliament said.

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